The drone strike that targeted the Taliban leader points to a troubling future for Pakistan’s largest province.
In July 2015, when Afghan intelligence reported that Taliban leader Mullah Omar had in fact been dead for two years, the Taliban chose as their new leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour. That selection created a fissure in the Afghan Taliban. In recent months, rumors emerged that Mullah Mansour was killed in Kuchlak – a town about 25 km from Quetta, and home to half a million mostly Afghan refugees – in a gunfight with a rival faction. The Taliban sought to quash the rumors by releasing an audio message in which Mullah Mansour denied he had been killed.
In May, however, his luck ran out. The Taliban leader was traveling from Taftan, a border town in Balochistan’s Chaghi district, about 600 kilometers from Quetta. One individual involved in the trip told The Diplomat, “When we asked him to reserve a seat in the bus, he refused. Instead, he asked to hire a car, and so we called Mohammad Azam to take him to Quetta. We did not know he was the emir of the Taliban; we thought he was a local Pashtun, who had visited Iran and had come back to Pakistan.”
Mullah Mansour was heading towards Quetta when his car was targeted by a drone, killing him and his driver Mohammad Azam in Balochistan’s Nushki district. Initially, local authorities said the car was carrying explosives, which caught fire. But locals said they saw “a small airplane” – by which they mean a drone – hovering over the car after the attack.
Some observers have pointed out that targeting Mullah Mansour would have been impossible without ground intelligence. They go on to note that ties between the U.S. and Pakistan have been strained. So, they conclude, perhaps in this case Pakistan collaborated quietly?
Government officials vehemently deny any such claims. Sarfraz Bugti, Balochistan Home Minister, condemned the strike, calling it an attack on the sovereignty of Pakistan.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking from Myanmar, said Mansour “posed a continuing, imminent threat to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan, to Afghan civilians, Afghan security forces, and Resolute Support Coalition members across the country.”
He said the air strike on Mansour sent “a clear message to the world that we will continue to stand with our Afghan partners.”
“Peace is what we want. Mansour was a threat to that effort,” Kerry said. “He also was directly opposed to peace negotiations and to the reconciliation process. It is time for Afghans to stop fighting and to start building a real future together.”
Kerry said that he called Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to notify him of the air strike, although he did not say when.
Addressing a press conference in Islamabad, Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan called the strike “totally illegal, not acceptable and against the sovereignty and integrity of the country.” He went on to accuse the U.S. of “sabotaging the peace talks with Afghan Talibans.”
The brother of driver Mohammad Azam told The Diplomat, “My brother did not know whether he was the Afghan Taliban’s chief leader, and it is the responsibility of the government to identify or stop someone. What was his duty was to take a passenger to his destination, which he had been doing.” The brother appealed to the government to provide compensation for his late brother, who had four children.
Senior Pakistani journalist Zahid Hussain noted in Dawn: “The killing of Mullah Akhtar Mansour signals a more aggressive US policy stance, as hopes of the Afghan Taliban coming to the negotiating table fade. The death of the recently elected Taliban leader, who had only just managed to consolidate his authority over the group, has given a new twist to the festering Afghan crisis. That the attack was carried out well inside Pakistan’s territory has worsened the predicament – exposing Pakistan’s vulnerability in balancing an alliance with the United States with maintaining relations with the Afghan Taliban.”
During a meeting with the U.S. Ambassador David Hale at the General Headquarters in Rawalpindi, Pakistan Army Chief General Raheel Sharif reportedly expressed serious concerns over the drone strike. He said “such acts of sovereignty violations are detrimental to relations between both countries (US and Pakistan) and are counter-productive for the ongoing peace process for regional stability.”
Dramatic Policy Shift
Michael Kugleman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told The Diplomat, “The drone strike on Mansour represents a dramatic policy shift for Washington. In effect, it signifies that the U.S. government has run out of patience with Pakistan, and that it has decided to take matters in to its own hands. By targeting Mansour, Washington is sending a very clear message to Pakistan: If you don’t act against militants on your soil that destabilize Afghanistan and threaten U.S. troops, then we will.”
“It remains to be seen what happens next. This could be a precedent that leads to further U.S. strikes in Pakistan against militant leaders, whether from the Quetta Shura or the Haqqani network. Or the U.S. could refrain from further attacks and hope that Pakistan gets the message and takes further action on its own.”
Shezad Baloch, an independent journalist who is based in Quetta, told The Diplomat: “It is a clear message from the U.S. that they will hit their target wherever they find it without Pakistan’s consent even on Pakistani soil. Balochistan is a Baloch majority province which opposes extremism, but its few districts share a border with Afghanistan and the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan where an operation against extremists is underway. So the movement of key Taliban leaders [on Baloch territory] cannot be ruled out. There are reports that they are in the northern areas of Balochistan’s Pashtun belt, too.”
He added, “It was first ever U.S. drone strike in Balochistan, and it seems there will be more. I was also shocked to see that there was no investigation by Pakistan after the body of Mullah Mansour brought to Quetta hospital. There should have been an autopsy to confirm the identity.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Mullah Mansour was tracked down by U.S. spy agencies while visiting his family in Iran. The report also noted that U.S. surveillance drones don’t operate in the Iran-Pakistan border area, but intercepted communications and other intelligence allowed agencies to track Mansour down and lay a trap.
Mullah Mansour was a frequent flyer, and reportedly used two Pakistani airports for his visits abroad over the past nine years. A passport and a Pakistani computerized national identity card found near his body bore the name Muhammad Wali. According to some reports, Mansour travelled to Iran twice through the Taftan border crossing.
Iran has rebuffed reports that Mansour had entered Pakistan from the Islamic republic just before the strike. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari was quoted by the official IRNA news agency as denying that Mansour had been in the country before the attack.
But observers say that there are three reasons why Mansour might have been in Iran: First, since early 2015, ISIS has been gaining a foothold in Afghanistan, particularly in the towns bordering Iran. The Afghan Taliban has been battling ISIS in those places. In this context, Tehran may have invited Mullah Mansour to Iran.
Second, it is believed that Mullah Mansour had gone to Iran to meet Sunni Baloch Islamists, who have been fighting the Shia state of Iran for decades.
Third, Afghan refugees are living in Eastern Iran, like Mashad and Zahedan. Some observers suggest that the Taliban leader had visited them.
Some reports have even claimed that Mullah Mansour held a secret meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Iran last November, which angered American authorities.
At any rate, according to Shezad Baloch: “It suggests there will be a huge crisis taking place in Balochistan in the near future, and also suggests that many countries have their spies in Balochistan.”
Pakistan and Iran have traditionally been intense rivals in Afghanistan. In the 1990s, Iran and Pakistan were involved in proxy wars. In 1996, when the Taliban began its rule in Afghanistan, Iran’s relations with the Taliban government started deteriorating. In 1998, after the killing of 10 Iranians by the Taliban in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif, relations worsened.
The Talibanization of Balochistan
Balochistan, which accounts for 43 percent of Pakistan’s land mass, has been in turmoil. It remains in the grip of violent attacks: besides Baloch insurgents, religious extremist groups also operate in the province.
Following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Afghan mujahideen were reportedly trained in Balochistan, the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, all areas that border Afghanistan. Later, following the U.S. invasion, the Afghan Taliban returned to these places. As Balochistan is situated at the mouth of Afghanistan, it has hosted a multitude of Afghan refugees, among them members of the Taliban. The U.S. has long accused Pakistan of providing sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban, particularly the top leadership in Quetta. Pakistan has denied the charge, yet as early as 2009, The New York Times was reporting that the Obama administration was contemplating the possibility of expanding drone strikes to Balochistan in order to dismantle the Taliban network.
A Quetta-based analyst, who did not wish to be named, told The Diplomat, “Yes, I see Talibanization a danger in Balochistan in the future, as the Taliban in Quetta have been expanding their network.” The analyst added that Talibanization is gaining strength ideologically and territorially in Balochistan, with Baloch locals joining the group.
Michael Kugleman said: “At this point, all we know is that Pakistan is in a very tough spot. It can no longer deny the presence of Afghan Taliban leaders in Balochistan, though it is also highly unlikely to take action against them. The implications for Baluchistan are unclear though unsettling.” “Baluchistan is already under tremendous strain given the separatist insurgency and the Pakistan military’s heavy-handed crackdowns and other draconian policies there. For the stressed local population, having to worry about drone strikes is the last thing it needs. Another concern is that Pakistan, under the pretext of cracking down on Taliban militants in Baluchistan, could now ramp up its crackdowns on the local population.”
Afghanistan has territorial claims on Balochistan’s Pashtun belt, and indeed on other Pashtun areas of Pakistan. That is why Kabul has had a soft spot for Pashtun and Baloch nationalists since Pakistan’s inception. Meanwhile, Pakistan has been accusing India of fueling the Baloch insurgency via Afghanistan. As for Afghanistan, it blames Pakistan for providing sanctuary to Afghan Taliban in Balochistan. All of these accusations and counter-accusations ensure that regional relations remain rocky, at best.
In Balochistan, Baloch nationalists claim that more than 80 percent of Afghan refugees have Pakistani national identity cards – they have become citizens of Pakistan. Mullah Mansour himself was holding a Pakistani national identity card and passport. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) recently apprehended Additional Deputy Commissioner Revenue Rafiq Tareen on charges of verifying the Computerized National Identity Card of Muhammad Wali, the suspected identity of Taliban leader Mullah Mansour.
Leading Pakistani national newspaper The News International reported claims that local officials were being forced to illegally process the Pakistani national cards of aliens. Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan has ordered a re-verification of Computerized National Identity Cards across the country.
Kiyya Qadir Baloch, an Islamabad-based journalist who covers Balochistan, told The Diplomat, “I believe this death hasn’t just raised questions about Pakistan’s position on the War on Terror; it has also generated suspicions that there could be more leaders of the Taliban movement. So the U.S. and its allies may continue to target them. We can say this was the first drone attack in Balochistan but not the last one.”
According to Kugleman: “If there is any silver lining here, it is that there will be more attention focused on Balochistan and the very troubling plight of its people. So little is heard about Balochistan because there is so little access. Perhaps we’ll now start to hear more.”
Kiyya Qadir Baloch offered a more disconcerting viewpoint: “Balochistan has always been called a safe hideout for the Afghan militants and the recent attack is I think evidence supporting those claims. This first drone attack may open the door to a new war in Balochistan.”
Muhammad Akbar Notezai is a Lahore-based journalist and correspondent for The Diplomat. He has contributed dozens of articles to Pakistani national newspapers and magazines including the Daily Times, The Friday Times, The Nation, ViewPoint Online and The News On Sunday. His writings and interviews focus on Pakistan-China relations, Pakistan’s foreign relations, domestic politics, Gwadar port, and religious extremism. He tweets as @Akbar_notezai and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Courtesy: The Diplomat